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Previews

Straylight Preview

Leaping across the cosmos may be comfortable in Straylight but its take on first-person VR platforming happens in a void, devoid of intrigue. 

Straylight is a platformer but not in the way you might expect. You’re not really jumping; instead, you’re using a tether, whip-like device to swing across blue star dots. You dual-wield two guns that each have the capacity to latch onto these dots. Moving forward is a matter of whipping your hand to create quick momentum or swirling your wrist to slowly reel yourself toward the point of contact. 

Each level is about reaching the end with ring checkpoints along the way. The tetherable dots form paths that guide you to the next ring and, subsequently, the end of the level. For the most part, you’ll want to follow them though there’s a bit of room for alternate paths. There are enough dots where you can pick and choose which you skip and which you latch onto. If you’re skilled enough you could fly across entire sections of the levels. 

The first thing that struck me about Straylight is its ability to capture the feeling of both flight and free fall. Unfortunately, that feeling is limited to moving at decently fast speeds and those speeds cost you a significant amount of control.

Floating in Space

One of the best elements of VR is the possibility for immersion and one way VR creates immersion is through rhythm and fluidity in movement. While moving from dot to dot feels natural in Straylight, I’d continuously default to stiff and safe actions because that was always my best shot at getting to the next checkpoint. 

I wanted to lose myself to the tethered pulls, swings, and twists of floating through space. I wanted to move at speeds that thrilled me. Instead, I was always determined to finish my task but never delighted to do it. 

I was always determined to finish my task but never delighted to do it. 

Additionally, the gap between failing and trying again is a bit too long. You’ll fall for a significant amount of time before being booted back to the last checkpoint. One reason for this is because you can recover even after dropping from huge heights, provided you’re able to tether onto another dot and pull yourself back up. But I still found myself well out of range just waiting for my run to start again. This a minor gripe but can become a major issue for players who fail often as this long load time can exacerbate existing frustrations. 

Obstance Courses

While Straylight is meant to be a graceful experience with some challenging traversal this idea isn’t supported by the level design or the amount of control you have when it comes to propulsion. As a result, most of the journey to the end of any given level was a series of tentative swings. 

Straylight’s more difficult levels managed to bring a bit more enjoyment when obstacles were present enough to force me to move faster but sparse enough to give me room to be a little sloppy. 

But anything that required too much precision quickly became an exercise in frustration, forcing me to be fast but not too fast. 

As a result, Straylight just isn’t that fun and its best qualities are undermined by dull level design and even duller visuals. 

Emptiness

In VR, a novel experience can be worth wading through subpar gameplay but Straylight’s setting may be one of its weakest elements. Space is empty, the planets are basic spheres, and the deadly obstacles look almost identical to neighboring planets. 

Straylight’s setting may be one of its weakest elements.

There’s a lot of nothingness with a few geometric objects floating around with a bit of sheen and neon coating. It feels uninspired. And narratively it feels similarly contrived with a robotic voice over saying ominous things, such as pointing out that you’re not dying enough.

In Short

Straylight’s physics are solid but as it stands nothing is compelling me to see this game through. 

STRAYLIGHT will launch on Oculus Quest and Quest 2, PlayStation VR, Valve Index, HTC Vive, and Oculus Rift in Q3 2021 for $19.99, and is available now in Steam Early Access and via free demo. For more information on the game, beam up to the Dr Bloc website, or find the team on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube.

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Reviews

What Comes After

Death comes for us all and it operates on a timeline none of us are privy to. Processing what’s on the other side and how it changes your perception of what came before is at the core of What Comes After.

You play as Vivi, who wakes up on a train ride for the deceased in which she’s the only living passenger. Unable to turn back until the journey is complete she’s invited to walk across the train cars and chat with the dead in the hopes of leaving with more knowledge and a better outlook on life.

It took me about an hour to see everything the train had to offer. While I was moved by the climax of the story and charmed by conversations with the dead, What Comes After failed to fully pull me in due to its repetitive visuals and lack of direct player participation.

Stop This Train

Like death, public transportation can become common ground across social lines. Folks from all walks of life will find themselves on the train. On any given day, you’ll be surrounded by business people, school children, peddlers, shoppers, tourists, and more. This made the train a great setting for What Comes After. 

Narratively, this parallel is highlighted from the beginning with Vivi eavesdropping on snippets of conversations across the train cars only to replicate that gameplay as you approach different ghosts for brief conversations. 

Taking the train, it’s common to see people fall asleep or have fallen asleep yourself so Vivi waking up frazzled and frantic felt like the perfect transition to this trip to the afterlife. 

The End of the Line

It’s clear that What Comes After aims to be lighthearted, even while broaching heavy topics. It’s mostly successful, but at times it feels a bit too nonchalant. When Vivi thinks she’s dead she remarks “And I’ve been considering [dying] for a while anyway! You won the jackpot, Vivi! ” with a level of cavalierness akin to accepting a free upgrade to a large popcorn.

There’s a way to casually remark something this serious while still couching it in its severity. It’s a big ask for What Comes After to dig into those emotions more but it invites that challenge by making suicidal ideation one of the focal points of the game.

While suicidal ideation is a driving force in What Comes After, it takes a backseat to the passengers of the train who all have interesting and eye-opening stories to share about their (often untimely) demise. 

Ghost Stories

I frequently found myself moved by their stories and, while reading them, I instantly began drawing parallels to my own life from candid reminders of the importance of family to harsh statements about spending your entire life making someone else rich.

Things can shift from sad to funny while still feeling seamless.

Mostly I was impressed by how quickly What Comes After can shift from sad to funny while still feeling seamless from a man excited to finally see his wife again to a woman asking if there’s time to haunt her ex before the train reaches its destination. Death brings out an array of thoughts and emotions for everyone and What Comes After gives us quick glimpses of different mindsets and experiences. 

Realism Behind the Magic

In terms of realism, it’s hard to imagine folks on this train to the afterlife would instantly open up and, in some ways, come to the aid of Vivi. Strangers on a train aren’t exactly the friendliest group. But Vivi is the main character after all and What Comes After adds enough curt responses to help ground how helpful everyone seems to be. 

Early in What Comes After you speak to a child but their demeanour felt beyond their years to me. And nothing takes me out of an experience more than a child that’s written as if they were an adult. 

It’s hard to imagine folks on this train to the afterlife would instantly open up.

What Comes After later justifies all conversational abnormalities (such as animals being able to talk) to the fantastical nature of the situation which is acceptable but not quite satisfying. 

Deadly Cute and Purposeful

Cuteness is clear from the jump from the delicate, translucent forms of human ghosts to the animals who have passed away, but still want to be held and pet. Surprisingly enough, even the plants are included on this death train. 

There’s plenty of appeal in the awww factor of What Comes After but more importantly the inclusion of plants and animals serves as a reminder that all creatures experience death. And not all of them had a good life on paper. 

Suffering Circus animals and hungry, stray pets are both reminders of the ways humans are participants in cruelty, even in passive ways. 

Just Here for the Ride

My biggest complaint about What Comes After is it fails to make the player an active participant on any level. You talk to dozens of passengers during the game but there are no dialogue options. Instead, you’re just pressing A through the conversation as if it was a cutscene. 

Not every narrative game needs to be choice driven and not every game needs to have layered mechanics but having neither made me feel like What Comes After is a game that happens with me there rather than something I’m playing. Lack of player involvement made me feel less connected with Vivi and, by extension, less interested in the story. 

It fails to make the player an active participant on any level.

Other ways to entice players are underutilized. There are just a few animations Vivi does as she reacts to people’s stories and cycling through that small handful gets old quickly. While you’re always on a train some cars have a different look to them to help break up the monotony but it’s not enough for me. 

The story What Comes After is telling is a solid one but it feels stiff given the limited presentation and, almost non-existent, interaction. I can’t engage actively in conversation or through exploring the environment. Despite being in control I’m left on the outside looking in. 

One Amazing High

What Comes After is inoffensive but unremarkable while managing to have some pockets of genuinely strong and charming writing. Without getting into spoilers the climax of What Comes After was by far the highlight of it all. There’s a visual shift that creates an intimacy that had been missing from the rest of the experience and the scene is magical, memorable, and downright tear inducing. But of course, one bright spot isn’t enough to light up the room. 

In Short

What Comes After contains small bursts of well-written stories but the act of playing through them is dull in comparison.

Score: 2/5

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Reviews

Maquette Review

The little things aren’t always so little. Whether it’s spilling a cup of coffee on a stranger’s sketchbook and ending up with a boyfriend or taking that key you just used to open a door and transforming it into a giant bridge thanks to, what’s essentially, a magical diorama: given the right parameters, what’s small can easily become big. Maquette is instantly weird in its world but charmingly familiar in its exploration of relationship dynamics all on top of being one clever first-person puzzle game. 

Sizing It Up

Like Russian nesting dolls, the inside is an identical but smaller version of what exists just outside. Each chapter has its own area with a building at the center. Inside that center building, is a scaled down diorama of the life-sized world (in some instances you’ll interact with a giant world just beyond that). 

Interactable objects have a convenient shimmer and, in some cases, a small beacon above them making them easier to spot. Plus the crosshair will change its icon to indicate it can be picked up. 

Dropping an item into the diorama makes it big in the real world while dropping big items in the real world makes them small inside the diorama. 

Sounds and Sights

You’re invited into Maquette’s world with “Hello Sunflower” delicately scrawled in illuminated ink across the star-filled night sky being the first thing you see. It was an invitation I accepted immediately because being dropped into a beautiful purple pastel garden, with quotes in the air guiding me as a haunting cover of San Franciscan Nights swells in the background, was completely up my alley. 

I adored the times in Maquette where areas bloomed like luminescent drawings before my eyes as I walked through the world.

Sketches are used as cutscenes in a way that’s both a visual delight and a window into Kenzie and Michael’s relationship. Creativity and wonder is at the crux of their dynamic brought together by their shared sketchbook; a book you essentially spend the entire game exploring. 

I would’ve been completely immersed in those initial scenes but the sound of the footsteps distracted me. When the material underneath my feet changed it didn’t sound right. Also when I ran for long periods of time or took quick steps the speed and impact of my footsteps felt misaligned to me. 

The world of Maquette was an invitation I instantly accepted.

Fortunately bigger moments, such as opening doors, had a satisfying auditory weight to them as metal gears turned and old doors creaked slowly. 

Most of my sound design related gripes melted into the background for me as I focused on puzzle solving. Still, things like the sound of dropping objects seemed off at times especially when placing them within the diorama. Maybe the loud thud of dropping a small staircase inside the diorama is just the sound of it falling a few feet from me in the real world. 

A New Way to Look at Things

Puzzles center on manipulating scale by changing the size of objects, going to bigger or smaller versions of the world, and exploring the environment in new ways. While additional layers are introduced, such as holding crystals to get through matching color barriers or throwing objects out of windows, the core always remains and makes almost every puzzle feel fair. 

Maquette manages to teach you the language of its design and its difficulty scales well. And, for the most part, it respects your time. Each chapter brings you into a new world with several areas, but areas you don’t need to access to solve the next puzzle are intentionally blocked off and for good reason. It was just the extra bit of direction I needed to feel like I could take on the next challenge. 

Even the existence of the diorama is helpful as a convenient overview of the space, in addition to its obvious role in object size manipulation. 

Almost every puzzle feels fair.

For me, one of the tenets of good puzzle design is making it easy to go from having an idea to trying out an idea and in this sense, Maquette is mostly successful. My biggest gripe is that the option to reset actually resets the entire chapter, not just the puzzle you’re on. 

While most puzzles can be solved within a few minutes (once you know the solution), this is a pain that discouraged me from restarting even when I felt stuck: including the time my character was quite literally stuck in an abyss between a few piles of wood and the wall of the house I was trying to enter.

Ripped Pages

Technical hiccups were never enough to ruin Maquette for me but it is worth noting that I had a few frame rate drops as well as instances where objects felt as if they got stuck on the environment.

In addition to these moments, I was also sometimes frustrated by how perfectly you need to set some objects down to get them to work. On the whole, staircases need to be set down flat, as any slanting can make them too steep to climb. Admittedly, this choice does get justified by some of the later puzzles that involve manipulating inclines but it does create a few small annoyances in earlier chapters.

Sketching a Love Story

Maquette is brilliant in its ability to make the gameplay constantly reflect the story, not just in the environments you’re asked to explore, but in the way you have to move through the space. For instance, there’s a line in the story that says “your little quirks weren’t so little anymore” right as I approached a giant, unclimbable set of stairs. It was a great physical manifestation of the feeling. 

Maquette’s moment-to-moment writing manages to realistically capture a relationship while adding just enough charm to make me feel for these characters.

And lines like “Our first year together was epic. It would be easy to chalk that up to naive hopes… But even today I feel what we had back then was special” grounded the couple as more than just infatuated with each other. 

Maquette is at its height when it’s capturing the more tumultuous moments of this relationship. The subtle yet poignant strain was well executed. The bad days of the romance weren’t in massive breakdowns or huge betrayals; it was the small flaws each other had.

Maquette is at its height when it’s capturing the more tumultuous moments of this relationship.

Romantic conflict in Maquette was never a burned down house. Instead, it was slowly peeling wallpaper in an old bedroom: annoying, easy to overlook at first, but eventually it becomes too big to ignore. 

Like sketches to a drawing, conflict starts out small and quick. And in a game that’s all about scale, that’s a fantastic story to tell. 

Without careful writing, anger can so easily veer into cringe. But I never felt that in Maquette. Instead I felt seen. I thought about all the times I’ve seen these fights play out before, in other mediums, among my family/friends, and even in my own relationship. 

Like sketches to a drawing, conflict starts out small and quick. And in a game that’s all about scale, that’s a fantastic story to tell. 

Of course, the story isn’t all flawless execution. While making gameplay mirror the narrative creates a unified experience within Maquette, sometimes it’s a bit too on the nose. For example, during a rough part of the relationship, Kenzie remarks on the cheap salt and pepper shakers “are a good start” and then later she buys really expensive salt and pepper shakers as an eye-rolley act of rebellion. 

Without getting into spoilers, these shallow threads become increasingly dull at best and cliche at worst in Maquette’s final chapters. They dragged mechanically and narratively. In some ways the areas and puzzles did reflect the melancholy and instability of the situation but it made for some of the weaker gameplay and storytelling. 

Someconnective threads are a bit too on the nose.

Kenzie pouring her heart out didn’t pull me in because those wires weren’t attached to anything. All of this is to say, Maquette does love and romantic conflict a lot better than individual conflict and self discovery. The catharsis didn’t heal me and in some ways it wasn’t meant to. I can accept that creative decision but it failed to elicit anything from me emotionally and served to frustrate me a bit in its puzzle – of course, that component will always vary from player to player depending on how hard certain challenges are for you. 

While the ending left me unsatisfied, none of Maquette’s late game flaws are enough to undo the brilliance that came before.

In Short

A wonderful puzzle game set in an eye-catching world, Maquette excels in its ability to walk players through a love story while making every challenge relevant to the romance. 

Score: 4/5

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Demos Previews

A Long Journey to an Uncertain End Preview

A team needs to connect beyond the task at hand to really get a job done, long term. It’s not enough to be invested in the gig at hand, you also have to be invested in each other. Similarly, A Long Journey to an Uncertain End will likely live or die on how much I can get invested in the characters. After playing through the demo (30 mins or more depending on how you play), I think A Long Journey has just that ahead of itself if it wants to pull this off. 

Featuring former Obsidian Entertainment and Telltale Games developers, A Long Journey to an Uncertain End is Crispy Creative’s first original IP and it’s a narrative focused Space Opera and management sim. 

As one might expect, the writing shines brightest so far and the diverse cast of characters are designed just as thoughtfully. Taking into account race, sexuality, gender identity, age, disability, and more, A Long Journey draws from our world in a way that’s refreshingly inclusive. 

Plus all the characters are stylish as hell managing to look futuristic and down to earth all at once with space chef Zeke’s extra mechanical arms and ingredient belt being one of my favorite character designs in recent memory. Unfortunately, the current visual backdrops are dull and lifeless in a way that clashes against these aforementioned highlights. And while there may be weight to my choices that weight isn’t effectively conveyed to me, making me feel like my decisions are just taking me along a story rather than shaping it directly. 

Building the Ship 

You start out just as lost as the main character and it’s fitting for those early moments of character customization and tutorialization. As usual, I took my sweet time with the character creator and was happy to find a slew of options I was able to mix and match. Various body types and bust sizes made it easy to build a character that resembled me (at least in build and general look). I was happy to see you can even select your pronouns, which sadly isn’t standard practice across games, and you even got to select your ex’s name and pronouns when asked about them during the opening.

Oddly enough, you’re not really the person you built. You are the ship itself and you exist in a world where sentiment ships have been outlawed long ago. This makes the character creation a little strange and takes me out of the story to ask myself questions like: is my avatar a hologram of the ship? Is this what the ship imagines she looks like?  Or is this just something else entirely? Frankly, I found it distracting. 

You’re told directly that you’re the ship which should avoid any narrative confusion but it’s jarring to see my character as a person while negotiating the fact that I, in fact, am not human at all. 

Take Off

Getting to know your crew is a big part of the journey but traveling and staying alive means you need fuel and supplies. Luckily, there are plenty of jobs across the galaxy as management sim is at the core of this narrative driven adventure. It’s up to you to staff these jobs appropriately to give yourself the best chance for success. 

Each crew member has their own attributes that impact their ability to perform a specific job. To simplify things, you’re told directly if a character is a good fit or just okay before sending them off to work. Selecting the pass time button will allow jobs to get going and you’ll be prompted to make decisions about how a crew member approaches the job’s tasks which was one of the more intriguing parts of the demo. 

The writing may be good but the gameplay doesn’t make me feel rewarded for reading it.

Will you ask for better pay or take what you’re given? Will you use brute force or try to sneak by undetected? Will you cut the red wire or the blue during a tech related job? These choices are compelling but unfortunately the impact they have on my results isn’t conveyed clearly enough to me. I want to feel the weight of my choices, I want to kick myself over a miscalculation, but so far I feel like aimlessly selecting answers would yield equally dull results. 

The writing may be good but the gameplay doesn’t make me feel rewarded for reading it. And so, I find myself tempted to skim over the walls of dialogue I’m presented with which is the last thing you want to feel in a story driven game. 

Gig Life and Colleague Dynamics

The vagabond, gig life being brilliantly underscored by survival; it’s reflective of that real life experience of working towards that simple goal of existing in peace. 

While every character in A Long Journey has to grind, they all have their own things they’re running from or running towards with motivations ranging from wealth and fun to safety. More importantly, most characters feel fleshed out in what drives them in the moment-to-moment even if they have a bit of a blanket personality in the form of their skills such as strength, technical ability, and charm to name a few. 

The vagabond, gig life is brilliantly underscored by survival.

You make choices within the job but ultimately your success comes down to a literal wheel spin. It’s cool in a “dice roll/board game” sense but it ultimately makes me feel like everything that came before was meaningless and that I should just click through and cross my fingers for a good result. 

If you’re unhappy with your result you can select Call in a Favor and spin again but there are no guarantees or better odds by doing this. And, just like in real life, you can run out of favors so I never felt super incentivized to try again. 

Planet Hopping

If sentient ships being outlawed wasn’t bad enough, you’re on the run from an abusive ex and thus are traveling across planets for resources and potential long-term survival (figuring out how to disappear). 

But going from planet to planet has its own bit of gameplay and heartwarming moments with the crew. From taking in the fact that your crew member, Matias, is giving midnight makeovers to everyone to receiving distress calls and having to decide whether or not to part with some of your own rations. Additionally, down time can be spent talking to your crew directly which is a great way to get to know everyone’s background outside of main story beats. 

My only gripe with this section is my main gripe with the demo (and game so far): stagnant visuals fail to bring the story to life. At the current state, I’m forced to imagine them more than I’d like. Of course, this is just a demo with a newly launched Kickstarter so there’s presumably plenty of room for growth. 

When I’m traveling all I see is my ship. What’s happening may be exciting but it’s less impactful when all I see is a block of text. Likewise, when I’m on a planet completing jobs all I see is a parked ship and a still screen of the area. It doesn’t change even as I’m narratively going to different jobs. Character’s don’t move or emote at all which leaves me at arm’s length. 

The animated cutscenes used in the game’s trailer are a flavor that’s missing from the current demo. There’s some good groundwork to A Long Journey to an Uncertain End but its ability to build something noteworthy rests on its ability to breathe some life into its very solid script and decent gameplay all while adding some weight to its flimsy choices. 

Sensitive Territory

It’s important for games to tackle tough topics but I’m a bit wary of the ways this “running from an abusive ex” conceit may play out narratively and mechanically. Crispy Creative claims to care deeply about telling stories in a way that’s both informative and enriching so I’m cautiously optimistic. 

Putting in your ex’s name may get too real.

This early on it remains to be seen how this specific storyline will play out. It does seem like the story could be triggering for some, especially because the game prompts you to write in your ex’s name. And for those of us who have been in abusive relationships, that could make the experience a bit too real. I will say, the demo did leave me wanting to know more about the relationship and that may be enough to hook me. 

There’s plenty to be hopeful about when it comes to A Long Journey but, as it stands, it’s just stiff and repetitive enough to undermine all it has going for it.

Check out the demo and newly launched Kickstarter for yourself and let me know if you’re sold on this upcoming space odyssey.

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Uncategorized

A Working Introduction

Like many writers and creatives, I’ve been told no a lot. It’s part of honing the craft and looking back, over my past 5 or 6 years in games media, plenty of those no’s were valid. But the no’s that bother me the most are when I was told it was a good idea but that not worth the time given the traffic it would yield (or rather the traffic it wouldn’t yield).

I think about the opinion essays that “not enough people would care about,” the games that are no longer “trendy” to discuss, and the reviews that “no one will read” and I’m saddened by all the wonderful things that never even made it to drafts.

No one is above the bottom line of business, myself included. Attention and ad-revenue are survival. I make content plans around what’s most likely to pop all the time. But I want to make an effort to do more than that. I believe it can be a part of my plans without being the all of my plans.

I want to create for the culture.

To me, that phrase means a lot of things. It’s doing something for the love of it. It’s going out of your way for what’s important. It’s giving back. It’s thinking beyond yourself. But at its core it’s additive. When you’re doing something for the culture you’re making a positive contribution.

Hence, the name of this site: Gaming For the Culture. Content driven from a point of interest and passion because it adds some value to some sector(s) of the community.

I have dreams of building spaces on the internet based on this attitude, pillars of content on this philosophy. I have dreams of working with a diverse group that I pay well to make whatever the hell they want. But today, it’s just me writing previews, reviews, listicles, features, and more.

So in honor of all the no’s this is a place where I say yes, enthusiastically, for the culture.

Thanks for being here,
Janet Garcia
Ps. You can read about me here.